Resist the lure of central heating and sofas – here’s our guide to keeping hill walking during the cold months.
Hill walking and summer go together well, don’t they? Blissful sunny days, warm breezes and glistening pints of amber ale in Lakeland beer gardens (or perhaps more realistically for a British summer, horizontal rain and frigid winds followed by soggy boots steaming on radiators.)
But for many people the experience stops there. The number of people on the hills drops off dramatically over the winter months as the masses retreat inside and the summits revert to being wild places of snow, wind and cold.
Yes, it’s true that the hills in winter can be unpleasant, hostile places for the poorly prepared. But they can also be dazzling environments with an intensity and beauty you just don’t find in summer. And with a bit of know-how, they are by no means off-limits. Converts to the joys of the winter mountains can become fervent snow-worshippers, getting an upside-down version of Seasonal Affected Disorder as the nights close in and the temperature drops.
Hill walking in winter covers a spectrum of difficulty and technicality. Sometimes the only extras you might need are an earlier start, some extra warm clothing and a thermos flask. But more ambitious walking in winter can require ice axe and crampons and the knowledge of how to use them.
We’ve outlined advice for three levels – lowland, moorland and mountain – so you can heed whichever suits you best. Whatever your ability level and ambitions, there is never an excuse to stay at home.
Moody winter weather off the coast of Cornwall. Photo: Shutterstock / Ian Woolcock
Walking in lowland areas might not be ‘hill’ walking per se, but a good walk in lowland surroundings is better than none, and it may help you acclimatise to the rigours of winter in preparation for bigger things.
To walk in fields, valleys, woodland or coastal areas in winter doesn’t require much more than the skills and know-how you’d need in summer – good navigation and route planning skills, appropriate waterproof clothing, etc – but you may want to think about giving your clothing and kit a winter MOT. Hats and scarves are an obvious must, but it might be a good idea to invest in a warm insulating layer made from down or a synthetic substance like Primaloft to prevent you cooling down when you stop (see this video on the layering system for clothing for more advice.)
Lowland areas are full of appeal in winter. Coastal walking, for example, can be absolutely spectacular, with crashing seas, lively birdlife drawn to the milder conditions of the shore, and stunning red sunsets. The bright winter sun reflecting dazzlingly off the ocean on a clear day can also be a wonderful tonic during the otherwise dark winter months.
Snow on the Staffordshire moorlands. Photo: Shutterstock / Tony Brindley
“Moors are a stage for the performance of heaven,” wrote Ted Hughes. In their stark simplicity, moors in winter absorb and reflect all the bleakness or beauty of the weather, thrashing like the sea under tumultuous skies or sparkling with Arctic clarity in the sunshine and snow.
By moorland environments, we mean the type of open upland terrain you’d typically find in places like the Pennines, Dartmoor, the Brecon Beacons or the Scottish Borders. In winter these open, wild, hilly expanses can feel the full brunt of the elements and pose significant navigational challenges, but they don’t have as much of the unavoidable steep and rugged terrain you find in ‘true’ mountain environments. They are also usually closer to civilisation – and easier to escape from.
Much of the time, even when there is snow lying, it won’t be necessary use an ice axe and crampons (see ‘Mountains’ section below) on the moors in winter. Usually the steep terrain in moorland environments can be easily avoided, and the snow is often – but not always – relatively soft due to the lower altitude. However, the key factor is the conditions on the day. There may be circumstances, such as in particularly cold or hostile weather, when having ice axe and crampons (and knowing how to use them) is a sensible backup in some kinds of moorland terrain. Moorland can also be wild and savagely exposed, meaning good quality kit and good navigational skills are essential, as are early starts and the packing of headtorches – them thar moors are dark places when the sun goes down.
Scafell Pike, England's highest mountain, and Scafell in their winter colours. Photo: Carey Davies
Winter can do incredible things to Britain’s mountains, the addition of a coating of snow turning humble hills into awesome Alpine spectacles. But with this transformation comes a step up in the level of challenge they present. Going into the mountains where snow and ice is lying requires specific equipment, skills, knowledge and awareness over and above those used in summer hill walking, and the consequences of making errors can be much more serious.
The key winter items are ice axe and crampons. These are typically required on steep ground when the snow has frozen hard. Provided you know how to use them correctly, crampons give you purchase and grip, and the ice axe provides balance and can be used as an emergency brake if you fall. But winter is about more than just some extra bits of kit; a snow-covered mountain environment contains a host of extra dangers – avalanches, cornices, whiteouts or snow bridges, to name a few – which require a much greater range of knowledge and awareness to deal with than in summer.
One of the best ways to get yourself up to speed is to take a course in winter skills, either with a mountain instructor, or a centre like Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms or Plas y Brenin in Snowdonia. You’ll also get a great insight into what to expect, and how to cope, by watching our Winter Essentials DVD.
A well-kept secret among fans of the winter mountains is that they can actually be more rewarding and beautiful places than their summer counterparts. The challenges and hazards are greater, but as this video highlights, so is the pay-off in terms of spectacle and wonder. Isn’t that worth getting out of the house for?
READ MORE: Essential winter know-how
Essential winter know-how: Heading for the hills this winter? Whether you're a seasoned winter warrior or just taking your first icy steps, we've got a mountain of essential skills and equipment advice for you right here on the BMC website.
GO ON A COURSE: Learn from professionals
Winter skills courses are held at the famous Plas y Brenin mountain centre in Snowdonia. Check them out here.
The BMC's partner organisation, Mountain Training, runs Hill and Mountain Skills Courses. They aim to equip you with the fundamental knowledge and safety skills required to participate in hill and mountain walking in your own time and are run by providers all over the UK. More info here.
WATCH: Winter Essentials DVD trailer
WATCH: Winter skills 1.2: kit and what’s different in winter
WATCH: Winter skills 1.6: route choice and what’s different in winter
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